Afghanistan is NATO's greatest post-Cold War undertaking, and the very rationale for the alliance's continued existence depends on whether it succeeds far away from the Euro-Atlantic area.
Who's The Enemy?
A lack of understanding of Afghanistan as a country and the dangers looming within and across its borders complicates NATO's assessment of its enemy. To date, NATO has been either unable or unwilling to define the enemy or characterize the alliance's mission.
"The situation in Afghanistan, in my view, in terms of threats, is multifaceted. I'm not so much concerned about a return of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda as much as I am about the success of the war on drugs -- which is accounting for about 50 percent of the gross domestic product of that country. To me, that is a much more serious problem. It has its own threats with regard to violence." -- U.S. Marine Corps General James Jones
On September 12, 2001, one day after the terrorist attacks against the United States, NATO invoked Article 5 of its founding treaty for the first time ever. Article 5 states that an armed attack against one or more NATO member states is considered an attack against all of them. While the gesture was historic, what followed was not a NATO-wide involvement in the U.S.-declared war on terror, but rather assistance from some members in the military campaign in Afghanistan. Whether the alliance would have -- under any circumstances -- acted according to Article 5 and participated in the Afghan campaign as one force is still a matter of debate.
Gradually -- and partly for political considerations not related to stabilizing Afghanistan -- some NATO members stumbled into commitments characterized by vague, undefined mandates. Since first taking command of ISAF in August 2003, NATO has endured a seven-month period of frustrating negotiations to secure three helicopters for its expansion to northern Afghanistan.
It has also sidestepped issues such as counternarcotics and confronting warlords that are crucial to stabilization -- the alliance's catchword in defining its Afghan mandate.
Now the alliance -- mainly Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, with non-NATO member Australia -- has decided to venture into southern Afghanistan, where the ill-defined enemy is particularly active. Politicians and military planners in Brussels and in member states that are contributing troops have been slow to focus their attention on identifying the enemy in Afghanistan and determining the most expeditious way to defeat it, spending time instead congratulating themselves on agreeing to NATO's southern expansion.
A few days after four Canadian soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing in Kandahar in late April, NATO's top military commander, U.S. Marine Corps General James Jones, said the alliance's expansion into southern Afghanistan has more than the needed "military requirements" to confront the threats there.
Jones also downplayed claims that the recent violence in southern Afghanistan is due to more successful neo-Taliban tactics or to an increase in their activities. He said the neo-Taliban is not an "overwhelming reality." Saying that it was "tempting to label everything as the comeback of the Taliban," Jones blamed the current operations against narcotics in the area for some of the violence.
Afghan police eradicating an opium-poppy field in April (epa)
Speaking in February, Jones discussed the problems NATO forces face. "The situation in Afghanistan, in my view, in terms of threats, is multifaceted. I'm not so much concerned about a return of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda as much as I am about the success of the war on drugs -- which is accounting for about 50 percent of the gross domestic product of that country. To me, that is a much more serious problem. It has its own threats with regard to violence."
Clearly, the enemy in Afghanistan is not only the Taliban. But is NATO prepared to confront actively druglords and warlords and those who claim to champion part or some of the ideologies of the Taliban -- an elusive enemy: the neo-Taliban? Also, given the current tense state of affairs between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- two ostensible allies in the war on terrorism -- is NATO ready to use its political capital to deliver a warning to both Kabul and Islamabad on the consequences of their lack of cooperation?
If so, then the alliance and other countries contributing troops to NATO's southern expansion in Afghanistan should brace themselves for a long and difficult counterinsurgency campaign in the region and an equally challenging diplomatic task in altering the current political trends in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Otherwise, NATO risks becoming a crisis-management mechanism -- and each crisis will bring more body bags and more dissent in the countries where those bags are sent.